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A blemish on an immaculate record

 Street News Service 01 November 2019

It was the soap opera that gripped an entire nation. A distinguished engineer, challenging his wife’s divorce petition, argued that he had “slapped her only twice, for insubordination.” On the face of it, it seemed like your average case of an abusive husband justifying wife battery. Problem is, the wife in question was none other than Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, Uganda’s vice-president at the time. (1066 Words) - By Joseph Opio

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SNS(EU)_Former vice-president Kazibwe addresses the media

 Former vice-president Kazibwe addresses the media. Photo: Joseph Opio

Kazibwe had shot to global prominence in 1994 when President Yoweri Museveni had named her to the second most powerful office in the land. Kazibwe's new position had made her the first ever female vice-president in Africa. It also earned Uganda universal acclaim for its pro-women politics.

Married to a successful engineer, Kazibwe was perceived as an inspiration for women, her stint as vice-president marked by her relentless promotion of women's rights. Yet, in 2002, a nation was shocked when Kazibwe confessed that she was seeking divorce from her husband. She cited an abusive marriage and infidelity as her reasons.

"Enough is enough," Kazibwe told a gathering on International Women's Day. "How can you beat a whole vice-president? I'm very sorry.'" Kazibwe's confession might have been inspired by the theme for that year's celebrations, which was "Break The Silence. Stop Domestic Violence." But it triggered off mass consternation.

Charles Kazibwe, it turned out, had routinely battered his wife of 28 years, philandered, and fathered two children by another woman. That a woman so powerful had been trapped in the sort of abusive marriage that's so common all over Uganda was shocking enough. That a woman so powerful had proved so powerless in her own household throughout her entire vice-presidency became a source of national embarrassment.

Some congratulated her for speaking out against domestic violence. But others criticized Kazibwe, a surgeon and mother of five, for "encouraging rebelliousness in marriages."

One cabinet colleague of Kazibwe's was later quoted arguing that the entire matter illustrated why women are ill-suited for politics in the first place.

To women activists, it was sufficient evidence that Kazibwe's elevation to the vice-presidency had all been a cosmetic service to the cause of women emancipation. "When Kazibwe became vice-president, we all celebrated the dawn of a new era," a leading law professor at Makerere University, Dr. Sylvia Tamale stated. "But after she confessed that her husband had been battering her all along, it proves that women can't be emancipated fully unless they are liberated in all aspects of life. It's no use emancipating a woman in public yet she remains at the mercy of an abusive husband at home."

Kazibwe's predicament inspired women activists to renew their fight to have a law regulating domestic relations. "Kazibwe was the example," recalls Jackie Asiimwe of the Uganda Women's Network, an NGO crusading to promote women's rights. "She was a powerful vice president, but in private her husband was hitting her."

But despite drafting the Domestic Relations Bill over 10 years ago, it still is yet to be passed into law. The Bill aims to outlaw marital rape, ease divorce for women, grant property rights to wives, and regulate polygamy. Sadly, it has been opposed at each and every turn by conservatives and religious leaders fearful that "it will grant women so many rights and lead to the disintegration of families and African family values."

Nsubuga Nsambu, a senior parliamentarian and vocal opponent of the DRB, even went on record to brand it "a conspiracy on the part of single and highly learned women to take over the country."

The failure to convert the DRB into law thus far remains the sole blemish on Uganda's otherwise immaculate crusade to promote gender equality and empower its women.

It's a crusade that was initiated and spearheaded by president Museveni long before the UN signed its Millennium Declaration in September 2000. Kazibwe's elevation was Museveni's most celebrated "affirmative act" but it has not been the only one.

The president's pro-women policies have seen women gain positions of influence in public office and increased the girl child's access to education and economic opportunities.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Gender, women now form 40% of Parliament, up from 18% in 1993. There are also 8 women in the 24-member cabinet.

Elsewhere, women occupy top-most positions at the Uganda Revenue Authority, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the deputy heads of the Judiciary, Civil Service and Electoral Commission.

Such gains are expected to be consolidated, thanks to the government's twin policies of Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE].

Both policies put special emphasis on the girl child, and with such free education, families have been weaned off the age-old practice where scarce financial resources were spent educating boys while the girls got married off instead.

As a result, Ministry of Education figures have shown that show that the number of girls is equal to that of boys all the way through primary and secondary school. Statistics of girls accessing university education have also spiked, inspired in no small part by the government's affirmative decision back in 1990 to grant 1.5 bonus points to female applicants. The proportion of female students has since risen from about 20% to 35% in 1998 and to 51% in 2008.

Not that women's rights crusaders are resting on their laurels!

The failure to pass the DRB remains a thorny issue, as does the nonexistence of an Equal Opportunities Commission. Article 32 (2) of the 1995 Ugandan Constitution committed Parliament to make laws for the establishment of such a commission, a brief that remains unfulfilled.

Dr. Tamale argues that the absence of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the DRB failure betray a strategic lack of political will, lamenting that "women are in positions of power without power."

Tamale's is among the top decision-makers at Uganda's leading university. But her concerns aren't entirely elitist, as her detractors have been known to claim. At the zenith of Kazibwe's divorce, radio phone-in debates were flooded by ordinary women who expressed concerns and deep-seated fears about their own positions "in a country where the nation's highest-ranking woman could be so flagrantly abused by her own husband."

And unless Uganda promulgates a Domestic Relations Law between now and 2015, such concerns are bound to remain, ensuring that despite its sparkling successes in all other spheres of women empowerment, Uganda will still have fallen painfully short of achieving this particular goal.

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